Oakland easing up stringent building code enforcement

Jan 2, 2012

[Audio available after 5pm PST]

Last September, 42-year-old Omar El-Baroudi appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. In the photo, he’s standing at the back of his West Oakland home. At the time the photo was taken, the house had been boarded up for more than two years. An Oakland building inspector had said his home was blighted. El-Baroudi disagreed. He says he’s been trying to improve things.

“I bought it for $185,000 and it was owned by a bank and there were squatters here,” said El-Baroudi.

By the time he made the headlines, El-Baroudi’s home had been caught in Oakland city bureaucracy for more than three years. Dozens of other Oakland homeowners had a similar experience. And they all said the same thing: the city was making it impossible for them to fix up their homes.

For El-Baroudi, the process started in April of 2008, when he bought a small two-bedroom on Magnolia Street. It was his first time owning a house and he had big plans for it.

“It was going to be a lot different,” said El-Baroudi.

A lot different, that is, then what the house looks like now. The basement and back windows are boarded up, the yard is overgrown and the inside is completely gutted.

The neighborhood is not all bad. One side of Magnolia Street is full of old, original houses like El-Baroudi’s. Across the street are brand new $500,000 lofts, and down the block are warehouses from Oakland’s industrial past. El-Baroudi calls the neighborhood “up and coming.”

“There’s a lot of artists and young people coming here. There’s just a complete mix of neighbors from people who drive into the city and go to their financial job everyday to people who have a part time job weeding out on medians and live over here. It’s a lower-class neighborhood with an upper class jacket on,” said El-Baroudi.

When he first saw it, El-Baroudi’s home was one of three vacant buildings, all in a row on the block. He says the windows would glow at night from the fires squatters were burning inside.

After buying the property, El-Baroudi got the squatters to leave, moved in and started cleaning up – not just his house, but the others around him. He used to remodel houses himself, so he knew what he was doing. He says his neighbors were glad to see the improvements.

Still, three months after moving in, he got a notice from a City of Oakland inspector.

“And then the odyssey began with one lien after another and one threat after another and, with one stroke of the pen, they tear your house down,” said El-Baroudi.

A lien is a security interest the city files against a property that says the owner owes them money. If the building is sold the city gets its money first. With each lien comes a nearly $1,000 fine, which makes it difficult to get loans on the property. 

One way liens are issued is when a resident complains about a property to Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency, or CEDA. Code Enforcement Officers inspect the property and, if they find a property that doesn’t meet city code, fine the owners.

El-Baroudi didn’t know about the existing liens on his property until the inspectors came knocking and issued even more. He says the liens are not his problem.

“Blight is unquestionably a huge problem down here,” says El-Baroudi. He says the city created this blight by forcing out the previous landlord with their stringent code enforcement policy.

Michelle Cassens is the founder of Audit Oakland CEDA, an advocacy group that monitors the city’s blight-control efforts. She says she realized liens were a problem for a lot of Oakland residents back in August.

Cassens spent the last two years examining public and discovered that Oakland was issuing hundreds of liens while other cities in Alameda County were not issuing any. Many of the liens in Oakland were equivalent to the value of the homes.

For Omar El-Baroudi, the fines piled up quickly. His building inspector claimed his windows were the wrong size, and that his railing and vinyl siding weren’t permitted.  El-Baroudi says none of these complaints had merit, but his inspector insisted he come in to file a 6-month compliance plan to fix the problems. That cost him hundreds of dollars.

Then he applied for building permits, but it took six months for them to come through and by then his compliance plan had expired. 

“My inspector absolutely had no empathy at all.  She would be writing these crazy fines on me, threaten to tear down my house and when I told her that I was going bankrupt –  which was a distinct possibility and still is – she was just like ‘good well when you leave the house be sure to call me and tell me because that will be different paperwork for me,’” said El-Baroudi. 

Last summer an Alameda County Grand Jury report supported the concerns of El-Baroudi and others. More than 20 people showed up to testify at the first City Council hearing on the issue. Councilwoman Jane Brunner made a motion to solve some of the problems outlined in the report.  One was to stop using liens until a new policy could be created.

“We do still need liens. If you don’t have liens you have no hammer. But you really want to make sure they’ve been noticed they have time to object they do the appeal and then you do the lien you don’t do it right away,” said Brunner.

CEDA’s Margaretta Lin says in the future they will file a lot fewer liens and they will not file them against low-income residential homeowners like El-Baroudi.

“We do need, however, to find ways to provide constructive notice to interested parties that that property may have issues with it. That’s our legal duty and our moral duty to the community at large,” said Lin.

They also have a duty to respond to more than 8,000 complaints every year.  Part of the problem in the past was that an inspector was sent to every home in question – which usually resulted in a fee to the homeowner. Lin says they’re trying to change that.

Now the city sends courtesy notices instead of inspectors to a home with a complaint against it.  If the owner solves the problem and sends proof to the city, no fines or inspectors will ever be involved. Lin also says they’re creating a way to appeal so accused homeowners can take their case to a neutral party.

This is the second time in a decade that the grand jury has found problems with how CEDA operates. Omar El-Baroudi has little faith things can change.

“This has been rough. I mean I got the loan. They said I could get my old permits back cause they had expired. So on the one hand I should be really excited but for whatever reason I’m just really tired right now.  But I’m going to get excited ‘cause I do want to live here. You know I put these roses in three years ago.  They miss me,” said El-Baroudi.